Toil and Trouble

Mephista is three women improvisers on the verge: Ikue Mori on laptop, Suzi Ibarra on drums, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano. They performed on Monday, January 27, 2003, at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans, LA.

They’re on the verge of making a name for their group, where they’ve made names for themselves individually previously (a debut album, titled Black Narcissus, is out on Tzadik, the record label run by John Zorn). They’re on the verge of bringing fresh sounds and musicianship to the musical community that goes by the name of “free improv.” And, of particular interest to listeners with a digital orientation: they’re on the verge of fully implementing electronic equipment in what has long been a largely analog-only scene.

Those listeners will focus on Mori, because with her laptop she is the official digital emissary. She is also both the most experienced and the most quiet of Mephista’s members. Mori has been known as a musician since the mid-’70s, when she arrived in New York (from Japan), playing in the group DNA alongside guitarist Arto Lindsay; DNA’s music was documented on the No New York album, produced by Brian Eno. Both Ibarra and Courvoisier were in the single-digit age bracket when Mori was first playing in NYC. Ibarra has been playing for years with a host of free-improv musicians and with other adventurous contemporaries whose work gets filed in record stores under jazz or “new music,” when record stores know to pick up a few copies in the few place; she has played with, among others, Evan Parker, David S. Ware, William Parker, Pauline Oliveros, Eugene Chadbourne and Derek Bailey; she has also played with the brainy art-rock acts Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. Courvoisier, who is Swiss, has played with, among others, Fred Frith, Mark Feldman and Dave Douglas.

Often in electro-acoustic music, which involves the blending of digital and analog instrumentation, it is difficult to tell what and when the “electro” musicians are playing. This is the case with Mephista, in part because Mori favors textural elements, and in part because her two fellow musicians, Ibarra and Courvoisier, are fond of making their instruments make sounds beyond what is expected.

Ibarra has a small bag of tricks, including bells that sound like landing UFOs, and she’s as likely to stroke her drum as one might a cat as she is to pull out her brushes or padded mallets.

Courvoisier is as likely to play her piano traditionally, which is to say, seated, as she is to play it in a manner that tends to be called “prepared,” in which one messes with the piano’s intestines. When she plays seated she generally brings to mind the airiness of French impressionism (Ravel, Debussy). When she stands, she plucks the strings from deep inside the piano, or mutes them with her palm or with strips of tape. She often lays down duct tape atop the strings, which doesn’t mute them so much as near-deaden them, so when she hits the piano keys they sound like an African thumb piano, Japanese shamisen or Vietnamese dan nguyet — or like an uptight harp. After employing this technique for some time, she will pull the tape loose, unleashing a duct-tape glissando. With her long brown hair, she looks at times at risk of being sucked into the infernal, black-lacquered machine.

Mephista performed for well over an hour: two long pieces, of 20 to 25 minutes, three short ones, each less than 10 minutes in length, and a brief encore. The concert was part of the CAC’s Awake-Nu Series of Jazz & Improvised Music, which is programmed by New Orleans musician and concert promoter Rob Cambre. The three women of Mephista played with compelling concentration, emphasizing a circular, harmonious motion in which sounds produced by one musician were picked up by the next and rotated around, less like a hot potato than a nascent musical theme, tended by three parents. Musical emphathy made them gracious partners, but it was amplification that made the three women of Mephista equals. Look away from the stage for a moment, and you’d notice that Ibarra’s drum set was miked in such a way that lent emphasis to ingredients (the traps for example) that would have sounded considerably quieter in a pure, unamplified jazz setting. Likewise, Mori’s laptop held its own against the grand piano.

Throughout, Mori sat center stage with her Apple laptop, summoning up rhythms to match Ibarra’s drums or Courvoisier’s woodpecker-like flourishes, or laying down a rich textural underlay. One thing that became apparent, and helpful to inquisitive listeners: Mori’s laptop was plugged into a separate box that, due to its having a small but evident green-lit volume meter, allowed the audience to know when, exactly, she was emitting sounds. When the little box was black, she was silent, but when the green lights sparkled, she was emitting something.

Likewise, you knew when to applaud at the end of a Mephista piece because, a second or two into an extended silence, the forceful concentration on Ibarra’s face would give way to a full smile.

Related links: Susie Ibarra's website. Sylvie Courvoisier's website. Ikue Mori's website. Tzadik Records's website. Contemporary Arts Center's website.

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